Crossing cultures

Students from around the world break bread

Contributed photos

Clockwise from left: Paula Martinez Gomez, Joyner (Zhixuan) Chen, Marta Mohedano Jurado, Yvette Shackelford, area representative for ASSE, and Frederica Perelli discuss table etiquette.

Yvette Shackelford, area representative for the ASSE International Exchange Student Program has been placing foreign students in Texas homes since 2012.

She started placing students at the Central Texas Christian School when she was the director of admissions.

“At first I did this as a way to bring diversity and culture into the school, and also to enrich the lives of the students that we would be hosting through the many wonderful opportunities at CTCS,” Shackelford said.

When she left the Central Texas Christian School she became the area representative for ASSE and continues to place students at the school and other Central Texas schools within a 120-mile radius of Belton.

“My life was greatly enriched through the lives of these students, more so than I expected,” she said. “It is such a joy to see the host families invite a complete stranger into their home and build a lifelong friendship.”

International exchange students attending the Central Texas Christian School prepare dinner at the home of Dawn and Will Sears.

To help students acclimate to American culture, Shackelford hosts an etiquette dinner at the home of one of the host families.

“I go over the Etiquette Dinner and Manners Program, which I used a combination of the National League of Junior Cotillion and United States Dining curriculum,” she said.

Four of the students are from regions of China, one student is from Italy, three students from Spain, and a guest student from Rome.

This year’s dinner was held at the home of Dawn and Will Sears. Nine international students, and guests, attended and shared a cultural dish.

“The students felt like American table manners were interesting, strict, but easy to follow,” said Dawn Sears, whose family is hosting Lucia Casquete Fernandez from Spain.

From left, Zhixuan (Joyner) Chen of China and Lucia Casquete Fernandez of Spain help themselves to some of the international foods served at a recent etiquette dinner for local exchange students sponsored by Yvette Shackelford, right, of the ASSE student exchange program.

“They learned about things like putting a napkin in your lap, engaging in conversation, waiting for everyone to be served before you start eating, and always passing items to your right,” Sears added.

Ethnic dishes shared by the students included Spanish cookies, Chinese rice with veggies, Spanish tortilla, Chinese wings, Pasta All’Arrabiata, tofu with cooked lettuce and potatoes with sausage.

“This was a great opportunity to hang out with the students from so many countries,” said Sears, “It was also a great opportunity to try foods from different countries and cultures. Each student brought a dish that represented their culture.”

Jennifer Watson, whose family is hosting Xingyu (Tonia) Liu from China and Lorenzo Macchini from Italy, said “These kids are brave to leave their country and native language and family to come to a foreign place.

Foreground: Host parents Jennifer and Tim Watson; Wyatt Watson, kneeling. Playing piggyback are Lorenzo Macchini with Dominick Watson; Josh Watson with Syrinna Watson; TJ Watson with Xingyu (Tonia) Liu.

Jennifer and her husband, Timothy, have five children ranging in age from 7 to 19, so her family has grown to nine people around their dinner table.

“There have been so many laughs as they have worked to figure things out, as well as a few upset moments. I have learned to love and accept children that I am not related to and welcome them into my tribe.”

Broader perspective

Alexandra Bowman and her husband, Jonathan, are parents to three daughters ranging in age from 6 to 9. This is her first time hosting an exchange student.

“We were inspired to host an exchange student because we wanted to be able to broaden our family’s perspective on the world and welcome a student from another country to teach us their culture, as well as vice versa,” said Bowman. “We were inspired to be able to minister, to love and to provide an opportunity to a student.”

Sifan (Emily) Tao, 16, enjoys her first Halloween in Texas with the Bowman sisters, Payton, 6, Madigan, 9, and Lilly 7. They dressed as Super Girl, Wonder Woman and Bat Girl.

Bowman said hosting a foreign exchange student has brought “another dynamic to our family of girls.”

“She has treated our daughters as her own sisters and she has taught them all about her country,” Bowman said. “We have learned how to be more patient and understanding and our home has been filled with more joy from the experience then we could have imagined.”

Leaving home for an extended visit or trip abroad can be daunting for the most seasoned traveler, but can be more challenging for young students.

The Bowman sisters, from left, Payton, Madigan an Lilly, welcome Sifan (Emily) Tao to Texas and the United States. Tao is spending the year in Belton with the Bowman family through the ASSE International Student Exchange Programs.

“They are very young when they leave the comfort of their own home, and I admire the fact that they leave what is comfortable to go and learn from other people, other cultures,” Shackelford said. “I love learning from these students, investing in their lives and watching the friendships form and grow. It is priceless.”

Shackelford said her ultimate goal is for the students to return to their native country with nothing but great things to say about the United States.

“I want to introduce American traditions and values,” Shackelford said. “Being from Texas, we have great pride in our state, and getting to share that with our students, and seeing them adopt us and love our great state is awesome.”

For more information on becoming a host family, visit